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Paulina Sygulska on: How to network effectively

Paulina Sygulska is a founder of GrantTree, a business (which I cofounded with her) that helps UK-based tech companies get tax credits from the government. She's a member of BNI and an extremely active networker.

In this article, Paulina shares some advice on how to go about generating business out of networking events.

For a great many types of businesses, networking is a crucial way of acquiring leads, particularly at the early stages of growing a business. And yet many people either get it wrong or ignore it completely. This is particularly the case in tech circles, where many people shy away from small talk and so end up deciding that networking is not for them, a waste of time. In some cases, they might even be right! Networking is not for everyone.

In this article, I'll try to provide some fundamental principles for how to go about networking so that it's not boring, and it's lucrative.

Strong relationships

The first thing to say about networking for leads is... don't. If you go to events and just focus on what you can get out of it, you'll get very little, if anything.

Instead, try to figure out how to make useful connections for those you meet, and how to help them. The most successful networking salesmen that I met where those who built strong relationships by, first and foremost, giving a lot of referrals.

Be seen as a generous business person, who is focused on the bigger picture, not just the bottom line of their own company. When you give people good leads, you achieve 3 things:

  1. they will feel inclined (or, in some cases, obliged) to help you in return;
  2. they will spread a good word about you;
  3. they will trust you more.

It may sound cliché'ed to say that givers get, but when it comes to business networking, it's a fundamental principle. The more you are able to help other people, even (or particularly) those who are not potential leads for your business, the more leads you will get in return. So the first question you should ask yourself whenever meeting someone is: what lead can I pass to help them?

Once you get in the habit of asking this question, and once you've built up a decent rolodex of useful contacts, the awkward "small talk" stage tends to disappear. There's a purpose to the conversation right from the start: you're trying to help someone, the person in front of you.

Practical advice

Although you should not directly focus on getting leads from networking, there are some general principles you can apply to increase the chances that you will in fact get leads, direct or indirect.

1. Don't spam

The most common mistake is spamming fellow networkers with business cards and information about you.

Any information about you is almost useless before you establish credibility. The founder of the most successful business referrals organisation globally, Ivan Misner, talks about the CVP process: Credibility, Visibility and Profitability. Those are key stages in networking for leads and if you try to omit one of them, you minimise your chances to succeed as a networker.

2. Allocate the time

Be prepared to invest a lot of time.

Studies have shown that successful networkers invest six hours or more in networking and follow-ups every week, whereas those that claim networking doesn't work for them are prepared to dedicate on average two hours a week to it.

When you are new to a particular networking scene, expect to have to invest a few weeks to a few months (depending on the industry you are in) before results start to show.

3. If you don't ask, you don't get

Don't just assume that because people know what you do, they will give you business or make connections.

Be humble enough to simply ask for things you need, in such a way that the recipient of your request doesn't feel pushed against the wall. Most people will rebel when feeling forced to do something so when you ask for a favour, give the fellow networker the freedom (and a way) of saying no without appearing mean.

Educate fellow networkers about ways to help you, and ask for things other than access to customers. Think about ways in which people could do your business a favour without risking their credibility. Once you have gotten someone to help you with one, easy thing, they're more likely to help you again in the future. It's often good to ask for help for a contact of yours rather than for yourself, to appear more generous.

Of course, only do this after you've done your best to help the other person.

4. Fish across ponds

Most people tend to network only with their peers, or with the personality types they're most comfortable with. As Iqbal pointed out earlier this week, that's not where your customers (or leads to your customers) are.

Don't be afraid to network with people you wouldn't naturally tend to speak with, be it because of the sector they are in or their personality. If you are in financial services or nanotechnology, don't look down on tradespeople. Find ways in which you can relate to the way a person from an entirely different industry does business, and ways in which you can help them. I've heard numerous stories of IT system integrators getting their biggest leads from beauticians or other completely unrelated sources.

Show interest and respect for what the person you've met does, find out about what, in all the things they do, really rocks their boat. Most people have some things they're really passionate about. One of the easiest ways of opening people up is getting them excited.

According to William Moulton Marston, who developed a popular personality profiling system in the 1920s, there are four basic types of personality, with two of them being people-focused (Influential, Steady), and two being task-focused (Dominant, Conscientious). If you are one of the former, then, when networking, you will feel there is more potential in conversations with people focused folks, and tend to steer clear of more withdrawn people. This is natural. The problem, however, is that you will miss out on 50% (or more) of possible opportunities.

So, each time you network, set yourself a task of approaching at least a few people who clearly aren't those you would get on with perfectly from the first minute. Feel out their energy and mood, and try to adjust to it, so that you don't appear threatening, frustrating or bored.

5. Present yourself

Before you've approached anyone, or said anything, your image has already spoken tons about you.

Look professional and neat but not boring. Generally it is better to be over- than underdressed, even in the age when tech tycoons wear blue jeans and black turtlenecks. People do subconsciously associate what you look like with how well you are doing.

This works in reverse too. Upon entering a room full of people, I quickly identify those I want to speak with, based just on their image (dress sense, posture, energy). In most cases, I find that my intuition suggesting I should approach someone was correct. Make sure you are one of those people others decide to approach when scanning the room.

6. Be sociable, energetic and clear-minded

Don't go networking unless you are willing to make the effort to be sociable and proactive.

If you are worn out, tired, or down, it's best to give it a miss. You will need energy to gracefully break into conversations, approach people in a friendly way, and be an interesting, intelligent partner in conversation.

And, it may sound obvious, but don't get drunk at networking events. It makes a terrible impression when the first words out of your mouth are a slurred out "Heeey, haaao's it goin...!" Have a couple of drinks if it relaxes you, but stay sharp.

7. Entering and exiting conversations

To enter a conversation, three approaches generally work in most cases. First, if you scan the room and see anyone standing by themselves and looking available, just walk right up to them and introduce yourself. If no one is free, approach an existing group, and listen in on their conversation, and wait for an appropriate time to make an intelligent comment. Alternatively, if you're feeling brave, just walk up to a group and introduce yourself! This takes a little courage, but once the conversation gets going, people rarely remember how it was started anyway.

Almost all networkers find that it's easier to enter a conversation than to exit it. To deal with the latter, typically, saying "it was nice to talk to you" with confidence and shaking someone's hand works much better than trying to come up with an excuse, or, even worse, running away to the loo. If you are talking with just one person, suggest that both of you should join another group and meet new people.

About when to exit: a common mistake that even good networkers make, usually out of politeness, is taking part in irrelevant, time-filling conversation with a person they are not going to be able to help or want to stay in touch with.

Exercise mental discipline. When the conversation looks like it's going to drag on, ask yourself: "Would I want to continue this conversation for months after the end of the event?"

If the answer is no, move on! If the answer is yes, and you can see an immediate opportunity of some sort, why not suggest to your new acquaintance to join you for a meal or drink right after the event (or during a break)?

8. Follow up

Lastly, networking only begins with face to face conversations. When and how you follow up is crucial to how the relationship develops.

The key principles with follow-ups are that you should always get in touch, rather than waiting for the other person to do so, that you should do what you said you would (whether that's testing out their product, writing a testimonial, making a connection, etc), and that you should present some "next steps" for the relationship to develop. Make it easy for people to trust you and for the relationships to grow.

Once you understand these basic principles, there are a lot of different follow-up systems that can be applied.

I know a successful networker who would write a follow-up email the next day, but, instead of sending it, save it in "Drafts" and connect to the person on LinkedIn instead. It's enough to remind someone about you and draw their attention to your profile. Two or three days later he would send the saved email which then had a much better chances of being recognised and opened.

Personally, I usually follow up almost immediately and, after a few days, call potential strategic partners/clients/introducers or the most impressive networkers I met and suggest a coffee.

In short

The key to successful networking is to focus on helping the other person. Give what you want to get. If you want to get leads from networking, you should be a source of leads yourself. In addition to this fundamental principle:

  1. Don't spam. Before you tell others about your business, establish your credibility.
  2. Set aside enough time, for both events and follow-ups. This can add up to over six hours a week.
  3. Tell people what you're looking for, after you've done your best to help them.
  4. Don't network only with the people you're comfortable with. Many leads will come from people in unrelated industries, or people with different personality styles.
  5. Present yourself well. Be one of those people who everyone wants to talk to.
  6. Be sociable, energetic and clear-minded. If you're worn out, go home and sleep.
  7. Don't get caught in never-ending, unproductive discussions. Learn to enter and leave the conversation smoothly.
  8. Follow-up consistently. Be the one to follow up, come through on your promises, and provide some "next steps".

I hope you find this advice useful, and I look forward to bumping into you at networking events!

This article is part of a series.

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